President Barack Obama's tour of china was an exercise in awkwardness, micromanaged and tightly controlled by a host intolerant of spontaneity. His meeting with Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao was, to put it kindly, stilted. Flash forward a week to the lawns of the White House and the difference couldn't be more palpable. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the guest of honor at the first-ever official state dinner in the Obama era, was feted in an atmosphere of easy conviviality, surrounded by a bubbly cast of celebrities and power brokers who toasted the bonds between the world's largest democracies.
But while the pomp and ceremony with which Obama hosted Singh on Nov. 24 may have prompted breathless gushing from the Indian media, it still can't shake a perception in India that it has lost ground to China in the new Administration's Asia policy. Many in New Delhi saw Obama's performance in China as acquiescent toward an emboldened Beijing. And they see India having a diminished role in the strategic calculations of Obama's White House, at least in comparison to the centrality it enjoyed during George W. Bush's eight years in office.
Despite Bush's blunders in Iraq and elsewhere, many Indians welcomed his embrace, which strengthened ties to an unprecedented degree after decades of Cold War estrangement. Prime Minister Singh faced opposition at home from politicians skeptical of closer relations with the U.S. his government was almost deposed by parties of the left protesting a nuclear-technology deal he concluded with the Bush Administration. But Singh staked his political reputation on the growing relationship. "Under Bush, India was being encouraged to be an Asian power," says Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi based think tank. Implicit in the Bush agenda was the idea of helping a rising India become a democratic bulwark against authoritarian China. Now, says Chellaney, "Obama sees things through a different prism."
Indian analysts believe Obama's foreign policy team imagines India mostly in the context of other regional challenges, particularly the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China, with its booming economy and position as America's primary creditor, now carries far more weight in U.S. strategy. "The ground reality is India at the moment does not count for the U.S. in the same way that China and Pakistan do," says Bahukutumbi Raman, a former top Indian intelligence official and head of the Centre for Topical Studies in Chennai.
Part of the price for that new reality, many in India believe, is a downgrading of their own concerns. Singh's U.S. visit coincided with the anniversary of last year's Mumbai terror attacks, which were orchestrated by Pakistan-based groups traditionally associated with Pakistan's military intelligence organization, the ISI. Obama and his envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, have urged India to make concessions on the decades-old Kashmir dispute in order to help Washington's efforts to get Pakistan to finally deal with the Taliban. But little has been done to coerce Pakistan to crack down on extremists using its territory as a base for targeting India.
More troubling for the Indians than the Obama Administration's prioritizing of Afghanistan was a paragraph in the joint statement released during the President's Beijing visit: it welcomed Chinese involvement in South Asia and spoke of Beijing's ability to "promote peace, stability and development in that region." In New Delhi, this was read as a sign of U.S. acceptance of China viewing South Asia India's neighborhood as part of its own sphere of influence. Chellaney sees the statement as a "return to a kind of Cold War thinking where two great powers can dictate terms to a lesser one." China's long-standing border disputes with India and its building up of the Pakistani military make many in New Delhi reluctant to welcome Beijing as a benign presence.
And yet, New Delhi and Washington have something special going for them, something the Americans will probably never have with the Chinese. At the state dinner, Obama extolled the values of democracy and pluralism held dear by both the U.S. and India, and the shared legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The natural alliance between the two nations seems as fitting as the fusion cuisine of chickpeas and okra, naan and cornbread, munched on by the guests. And it won't need scripted summits to grow. More than 3 million people of Indian origin live in the U.S.; Indians comprise the biggest pool of foreign students in American universities, and wealthy Indian professionals are creating an increasingly effective India lobby in Washington. These, not the fluid world of geopolitics, are the ties that truly bind.